Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

November 5, 2012

Wattpad and the New Reader

On October 24th 2012, Margaret Atwood released her latest novel, a serialized zombie horror novel co-written with the relatively unknown young British author Naomi Alderman, through the free online reading service Wattpad. As of today, Monday, November 5th 2012, it is being read by approximately 4,300 people. By conventional Canadian bestselling wisdom, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is a bestseller in just under two weeks. And it’s not even a completed novel.

Is this the future of publishing? Or, at least, a straw on the back of traditional publishing’s camel? Wattpad is a fascinating service, and I can see why traditional publishers are hand-wringing over their future given the existence of this and other similar services.

Let me break Wattpad down for you. Wattpad lets users upload content, usually grouped as a project divided into “parts”. In June it reportedly hosted more than 5 million user-generated stories in 25 languages. These stories (and poems) can then be read on Wattpad’s website or with Wattpad’s app by any number of its 3.5 million registered users. Stories are tagged with genres – most popularly, Romance, Teen, Vampire, Fan Fiction and Fantasy – as well as some miscellaneous write-in tags, then sent off into the ether. Readers “discover” future reads through browsing (much like Kickstarter) rather than with a more fine-grained searching process.

Getting read on Wattpad depends on readers finding your story. Readers can browse by vague criteria like “What’s Hot”, “What’s New” and “Undiscovered Gems”, they could choose to investigate your book if it happens to pop up in your randomized “recommended” window, or they can be directed right to your story with a link – if someone brings that link to their attention. The default browse option is the “Hotness” chart. “Hotness” is determined by a top-secret Wattpad blend of activity measures.  Your story gets a boost for being new. There are points for new chapters being added. You get points for receiving “reads, “votes” and “comments”. The highest scoring books will show up first and most often when readers go to find new books. A long-completed book will tend to flounder. So will a book that doesn’t get enough “activity”, which means reads and votes. New writers are encouraged to get the word out, to stump their book amongst their friends and relatives. The reward for getting those favours is a higher ranking in the search engine, which hypothetically will result in more “real” reads from actual Wattpad users. A system like this rewards the serialized novel. With new updates every few days or weeks the novel has constant activity and thus a high ranking. Not surprisingly, a typical Wattpad reader has a dozen or more stories on the go at once. Each book might only update a couple times a month, so they read more of them at a time. A book or author that doesn’t update might be forgotten as new, active, hot reads are found.

Two things you have to understand: an enormous amount of what is on Wattpad is terrible. I mean, it’s really, very bad. The average age of the Wattpad user is 20 – no small number of the stories are written by the 14-16 year old bracket. But secondly, many Wattpad users don’t seem to care. Things you might consider to be fundamental to a novel like spelling, grammar and, oh, I don’t know, an ending are routinely disregarded on Wattpad.  Some of the hottest, most-viewed titles on the page barely qualify as amateur. Do the readers care? Apparently not. There are millions of users reading millions of stories a dozen at a time and absolutely nothing offered by a traditional publisher matters to them. The editing? Design? Advertising? All irrelevant. The traditional publisher has absolutely no place in the reading lives of these users.

These readers have always existed. The internet age did not create them. Janice Radway’s 1984 ethnography of romance readers, Reading the Romance, reported that something like 88% of her romance readers were reading between 1-9 romance novels per week. That’s 50-450 per year. They were devouring content with very little, let’s be honest, literary value. If we’re generous and assume those novels cost as little as $4.99 each, then those readers would have been spending $250-$2250/year on just romances. Each.

Well, now they can get them for free. These are the readers that services like Wattpad, Smashwords and Fictionpress appeal to, and this is the money that traditional publishers are hemorrhaging. The hand wringing – I get it now. That’s a lot of money. And how much of that money was underwriting the publication of the much-less lucrative literary fiction?

Literary fiction would have a lot of trouble in this format, Ms. Atwood’s efforts notwithstanding. There is simply no time to edit, let alone revise. I won’t even touch on the very-welcome input of third-party editors and fact-checkers. Speed is the name of the game: you need to update your novel at least every couple of weeks, and while you are welcome to go back and make changes to previously-published chapters, it’s unlikely any of your followers will go back and take any note. Dropping a whole, edited novel at once doesn’t capitalize on the algorithm for getting your book to the top of the charts. A successful writer in this medium pulps out quick, easy-to-understand content in short bursts and spends the rest of her time working the forums and social media sites. Reading, research, and consideration are secondary concerns you won’t likely have time for. This type of reader is impatient. Content has to be delivered quickly, and that content has to be understood quickly. If your novel takes three chapters to set up mood and setting, you may be doomed.

Despite Wattpad’s being a free service filled with free content, its highest ranked writers do try to monetise their work. A number of Wattpad writers have snagged agents and traditional publishers for their work, most famously Brittany Geragotelis, author of What the Spell & Life’s a Witch, who got a 3-book, 6-figure deal with Simon & Schuster for her trouble. Many Wattpad writers also self-publish their completed work through Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords, or continue to offer their first books for free while charging for sequels. Already-published authors also make an appearance, contributing partial novels or short works in order to whet an appetite for the completed work, for money, offered elsewhere.  I’d love to know how this works out for the self-published writer.

Atwood has suggested that Wattpad isn’t a replacement for traditional publishing, but a gateway to it. While yes, because the money is still in traditional publishing, I think Wattpad’s writers see that as being the case, but I am less convinced about its readers. What does a published book offer them that a Wattpad story doesn’t? Will these readers make the transition to whole, slow books?

I decided to take the dive and try the service myself, uploading a bottom-drawer manuscript to see how it plays with the reading masses. The experiment has been informative – I am no nearer to knowing if my book is any good, or if anyone likes it, but I am becoming deeply aware of how important author engagement is to getting there. It took very little activity for my book to shoot up into Wattpad’s Top 20 Hottest books, but much of that activity is readers glancing at the first chapter and moving on. The same can be said for Happy Zombie Sunrise Home – the first chapter has been viewed 10,000 times, vs the 2,200 who have looked at Chapter 4. About 1 in 5 readers sticks with in, meaning you need to get that many more people to even go take that glance. This means chatting people up, handing out your card and yes, keeping the book on the charts. It is no different than a traditional novel. How many books sold sit unread on shelves? This is certainly a cheaper way for a reader to dabble. Readers are coming to expect to be able to sample for free – publishers now routinely offer first chapters for reader perusal. Whether the reader is willing to pay to continue is the million dollar question.

So in keeping with the spirit of Wattpad I offer you a sample of my book, The Incredible Bazza’Jo. It’s a Young Adult Fantasy with colonial, environmental and social themes. It also has, if I do say so myself, some really excellent action and adventure elements, as well as an “age appropriate” romantic sub-plot. Click away! And while you’re at it, take a look at Wattpad and let me know what you think – a fad, or a keeper? Will these kids grow into paid, long-form books?

9 thoughts on “Wattpad and the New Reader”

  1. Sheryl says:

    I created a Wattpad account last week… and deleted it yesterday. Your assessment is bang on and I do not have the time or energy to try and market long form food writing (a hard sell to adults) to 14-year-olds.

    Add to that the fact that the site is primarily fiction; my food stories were lumped into a category with diary entries (!!!) from angsty teenagers.

    It might work very well for certain genres aimed at specific demographics, but I got the impression that it would be a hard slog to get those readers to look at my work.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I wonder how much of that, though, is just coincidentally specific to this service. Could another person create a different site with a more literary focus using the same model? User-uploaded content, readers, no charges – but for grown-ups?

      I suppose as with anything on the internet, the pulp and the vampires would inevitably show up in droves, and be the most popular thing there, because that’s what people like and thats what people read. I feel like that’s why Atwood is throwing her support behind Wattpad, because she recognizes that ANY un-curated collection of writing is going to go this way, and the only way to give it more gravitas, or more merit, is to stake out a corner of it for the literate. Good, literary work (fiction and non) has always been on the fringe, and I have this feeling it continues to be published only because it is underwritten by the other stuff. The same balance will have to be struck in a digital reading world.

  2. mikevonwattpad says:

    Thanks for your review of Wattpad – it’s always great to get feedback and see how our message is being received.

    We see Wattpad as the future of reading, bringing writers and readers closer together and providing the capabilities for consumers to discover writers for themselves instead of being forced to choose between the relative few who are anointed as worthy by publishers.

    One way to look at it is that, like YouTube, we provide the place for writers to offer their creations and readers to connect with content that speaks to them. Some works will carry broader appeal than others, and a great many will be meaningful to just a handful of people. We don’t see that as failure, but rather the nature of new content discovery systems as we’ve seen in music and video. Print stories are just late to the party.

    There’s a lot more we need to do to aid in this discovery as well as to broaden the type of content being added to the site. Feedback like yours helps us see this through new eyes! Please feel free to email me if you have any more. I’m mike@wattpad.com

    Mike Beltzner
    Head of Product, Wattpad

    1. Anonymous says:

      It’s great in theory, but it’s been my experience as a professional writer that promotions via Wattpad have been an unmitigated headache. I’ve had readers approach me requesting to redesign my cover art, nag me to continue posting my books (all of them) for free, etc. This is a portion of my income, and these children expect–no, are demanding–that I simply give it away because they have an appetite for free fiction. Overall, I think your service has harmed my profession, not brought readers to buy the other books I’ve written. I’m about to pull the plug on my participation, even though it was encouraged by my distributor. My purpose is to sell more books. Yours seems to be in the further devaluation of professional writing.

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  5. darkocean says:

    I love wattpad. It’s been a hard two years let me tell you! I’m worked hard on my story, editing the spelling, grammar, learning show vs tell, plot lines, dialogue, characters, what fragmented sentences are, redundancies, passive voice, and to spot and fix tense issues. It was bad, the story was worse bad barf awful. (I capt the first draft to remind my self, just how bad it was.) Don’t be to harsh on young authors it takes a willingness to want to improve ones writing before it can become better. Everyone here is missing a key thing about wattpad, the website is a great way to et lots of willing, beta readers for your story. Expecually good if you already have a few finished stories.

    Then just post up a chapter a week, find a beta reader and get your feedback. My book has jumped from a measly 3 reads (two years ago) to 7k reads now. Not bad considering it’s a fantasy story. Not perfect as there are stories with millions of reads. However this week I’m getting one read per hour or so, (huge jump) do not give up keep trying, if you want it work for it and your story will get reads and votes.

    Also let it be noted that votes are super rare and not to be put off by other ones that have lots more then you. Focus more on there reads if it keeps going up or even gong up fast then they love your story and don’t want to stop to vote. So show them love back and make a new chapter every week.

  6. Jay says:

    What you say is on point here—most (if not all) fanfiction that are insanely popular on wattpad has little to none creativity and originality.
    Wattpad is insanely popular, yes. The original fiction stories writen by youths are passeble, yes.
    But fanfiction writers and readers—please do not expect too much. Wattpad is a good practise location for beginners and young students, but if you truly want good fiction—please to go ao3.
    My problem with wattpad stories/writers is just that—true gems are not included in the ‘undiscovered gems’ section, while ‘amateur’ stories are being promoted.

  7. Cate Hogan says:

    Great article! I recently interviewed one of my writing clients about how she managed to achieve 2.1 million reads (and growing) for one of her books on the site. Wattpad has proven to be a great source of beta readers, and reader metrics. You can check the article out here:http://bit.ly/2bHi29m

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